Haven Rather than Heaven at La Bri
LA BRI ESTATE
Friday 15 February 2019
I passed La Bri as I headed up the Green Valley Road in Franschhoek to Holden Manz. I knew the estate was open for tasting after (many Valley wine farms are ‘by appointment’ only). It took me less than 5 minutes to retrace my steps and so it wasn’t long before I passed through the entrance and along a brick-paved road bordered by olive trees and vines. It was a lovely approach and made more so by a small swarm of cyclists leaving as I arrived. I crossed a small white bridge and parked with ease.
Unusually, the Tasting Room was up a set of outside stairs at the end of a small courtyard filled with mature trees with leafy Clivia beneath. The long Tasting Room was designed more for function than comfort, though gave access to the cellar from above and to an open balcony with expansive views over the vineyards to the Hottentots-Hollands Mountains beyond. I soon saw the reason for the arrangement and décor as another influx of time-pressed Franschhoek Wine Tram guests arrived to distract Wendy, my tasting host. There’s little time to relax for the weary wine tram traveller between pick-ups. I know. I spent an enjoyable day on the Red Line almost 2 years ago.
Tasting options were more geared towards pairings – Cheese & Wine, Biltong & Wine and Lokum (Turkish delight) & Wine. All were R65 and sold as ‘gluten and egg free’, ‘free range meat’ and ‘vegetarian and halaal-certified’, respectively. The 2 wine tasting options included 4 wines for R50. I opted for the Estate-grown La Bri tasting over the entry Double Door tasting.
The sole white wine was an oaked Chardonnay of limited complexity and moderate intensity. Sweet baked apple and vanilla aromas on the nose together with the mid- to deep- straw colour told of oak and more oak (the wine is matured for 12 months in 48% new French oak). The 3 months of lees contact showed in a simple yet smooth texture and a soft finish. I would have preferred a greater intensity and weight of mouth feel.
La Bri is better known for its red than white wines (80% of production). Vines are grown in sandy loam and alluvial soils on 15 hectares of this 20 hectare property, including 4 of the 5 Bordeaux cultivars together with Shiraz, Chardonnay and Viognier. The farm has a long history with the name thought to be derived from the outlying town of Brie, home to the de Villiers family in the early 13th century. L’Abri stems from the French for ‘refuge’ or ‘haven’ which suits given its mountain surrounds. The historic records show a farm of 50 hectares in 1694, with La Bri 1 of some 65 farms in Franschhoek in the 1600s, with transfers of ownership during the 1700s and 1800s (the Cape Dutch Manor House was built between 1813 and 1862).
Robert Hamilton bought La Bri in 1997. The first wines made from the 2008 harvest. I wondered if Merlot was one of the first to be made as I sampled the pale ruby, medium-bodied wine, first of the red wines on offer. Cherry, plum and rich fruit cake flavours and tight tannins on the palate gave a youthful feel, aided by 20 months in new (18%) and 2nd fill barrels.
The Syrah was similarly aged (24 months in new (30%) and 2nd fill French oak) but from a previous vintage, 2015. Black pepper spice and tight tannins overpowered indistinct dark fruits that limited the complexity of the wine.
I preferred the Affinity, a Bordeaux-style blend and Top 100 SA Wines and Double Platinum Winner. The mix of cultivars gave better complexity of red and dark currant and berry fruits of mulberry, cassis, bramble and tobacco on the nose. Tight, closed tannins gave structure and a lingering albeit bitter finish.
The tasting complete, my eye caught a Natural Sweet Roussanne from the Double Door range. Wendy allowed me to taste. The wine was a shiny, pale straw in appearance with a distinct floral, fruity sweetness of white peach and pear on the nose together with slight spiciness. The sweetness on the palate (RS of 20g/l sugar) belied the 13.4% alcohol content on the delicate, shy yet medium mouth feel on the palate that led to a short and slightly bitter almond aftertaste.
La Bri teased and tempted. I liked the attractive bottles, each with their coloured plastic cork covers and the botanical sketches on the labels: yellow and Clivia for the Chardonnay, for lively and floral notes; pink and Amaryllis belladonna, for elegant, refined and feminine for the Merlot; purple and Herbae, fennel, thyme, rosemary, oregano and violet for the Syrah; and red with Geissorhiza radians, with its deep blue, red-centred ‘wine cup’ flowers for the Affinity. I liked too the tasting folder that included Tasting Sheets for each wine, useful to fill in the gaps as Wendy poured the wines. The Estate and its wines are clearly popular and well known, and not only to the tram visitors.
I would have enjoyed learning about La Bri, its obvious history and importance in the Valley during the tasting. The wines, reds especially, were served at room temperature and much too warm fully to appreciate with an afternoon temperature of 29°C. The tannins on most of the red wines were tight and closed, perhaps a feature of the La Bri winemaker’s style, which gave an edgy rather than a relaxed experience. It could well be that they are better drunk with food, hence the pairing options offered for tasting.
Nonetheless, I was pleased to have visited this ‘haven’ in Franschhoek and look forward to sampling more of La Bri wines when the opportunity next arises.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Chardonnay – R140
2018 Natural Sweet Roussanne (375ml) – R80*
2016 Merlot – R130
2015 Syrah – R160
2015 Affinity (40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot) – R150 FAVOURITE WINE